It’s Very Nice, So Full Of Spice

Last night I stayed out late at the studio, working in an extra lesson in order to help finalize the rhythm routines. The usual Saturday lesson where Sparkledancer and I meet up and work with Sir Steven have really focused on getting us comfortable with the smooth-style dances. Those dances are really where I feel the least prepared, no matter how well I have the routine memorized. There’s something about traveling around a room with a pack of people that unnerves me, no matter how well I know the steps. Knowing how much time we have spent to perfect those routines, Sir Steven asked us both last Saturday if we would be able to hang out after the normal Wednesday class and start to put the finishing touches on the rhythm routines, so we could wrap everything up and spend the rest of the time before competition cleaning things up rather than learning things.

Impressively, we managed to get through quite a bit last night, which felt really good. Most of the work went to the Latin dances: we proved that we had Cha-Cha down, and he said that it didn’t even look half bad. Rumba and Mambo were finalized by adding in a few new figures that I am going to have to work on. East Coast Swing we got the first section of it put together in order. West Coast Swing we reviewed some of the new figures we had been working on, but didn’t put any formal order to them yet. Bolero we ran out of time to review. I’m guessing that if next week we do the same thing, we can finish everything up. So for those of you keeping score, that’s seven routines down and three to go (or eight to go, if you count the ones I have to learn to dance with Lady Q).

Memorizing these shouldn’t be that hard. I have been stepping through them in my head most of the day, and I think I should be able to do them next time I have a partner to practice with. As I’ve mentioned in the past, rhythm dances just come so much more naturally to me, so learning them isn’t what will need the most time. Making them look good will have to be the focus. There are just stupid things that I keep doing that I know are wrong, and I really need to break the bad habits I’ve grown into before getting out in front of a judge and performing. For instance, in East Coast Swing I have a tendency to rock back using only the ball of my left foot. I know that I need to plant my whole foot down when I do that, but for some reason Sir Steven catches me all the time using only the ball of my foot. My CubanPete1other big problem lately is that I have been working so hard to force myself to take heel steps to improve my smooth dances. I find myself at work, walking around the office taking heel steps wherever I go. Now that I’ve been doing that so much, sometimes the habit bleeds over into my rhythm dances. Last night apparently I kept doing it during Rumba, much to my chagrin. Sometimes it amazes me that there are people who do this sort of thing for a living, and manage to not make mistakes like that all the time. How does one truly learn to not take heel steps or toe steps at inappropriate times? My brain is swimming in foot movements some nights when I am lying in bed, trying to fall asleep. Lately I worry about things like that more than I do about the actual dance steps. I guess that means I am getting to the point where my technique is becoming meaningful, rather than just being focused on showing off flashier moves. Does that mean that I am growing up as a dancer?

Last Saturday the Princess also showed up during what is normally our Dance Technique class and gave a talk about the upcoming competition. I’m not sure what I was really expecting to learn from her, but most of what she talked about seemed geared toward the people who had never done a dance performance before. Some of it seemed like it was pretty much common sense, but people were still jotting down notes when she said things. Stuff like: bring a change of clothes, since you are going to get gross and sweaty and no one will want to dance with you if you are gross and sweaty. Bring something warm to wear when you are not dancing in a heat, because it will be cold in the ballroom. Make sure to warm up in the morning. Take advantage of practice time. Pay attention to what heats you are dancing in, because they won’t stop the event if you aren’t ready to go. I started to space out after a while listening to things. Looking around, it was funny to see that the Princess had pulled her chair into the back corner to leave room on the dance floor for the lessons Lord Fabulous and Lady Q were giving, and all of us had taken a seat on the floor in front of her, kind of like kindergarteners listening to the teacher read a story.

One interesting note that I found out during that talk was that my dance partner and I were the only people from our studio brave enough to sign up for one of the championship rounds. Everyone else is doing some varying number of heats, but we will be participating in the amateur-level 5-dance American Rhythm championship round. It sounded like fun to me, which is why I signed up. The thing I like about this championship is that the amateurs and the Pro-Am couples will be split up, so this time I may actually have a chance of getting something higher than last place. If Sparkledancer and I can get second-to-last place, I will consider that a huge win in my book. If they give us some CubanPete2kind of trophy, I am going to go out and buy a huge shelf to put up in my living room just to display that one item, even if it is just a tiny trophy. I would be really proud of it. I don’t actually know what they hand out as prizes for championship rounds like this, seeing as how I’ve never done better than last place. Maybe they give out medals instead. If they did that, I would probably wear that medal every day for a month, just to make sure everyone I walk past sees it. I’m guessing though the prize is something like dance scholarship money or something, but I can dream.

One thing I am really going to try and do this time is to make sure I perform during these routines. The last set of scores I got told me that my weak point was not technique necessarily, but performance. So I am going to try my best to be interesting to watch this time, so that people will have fun seeing me on the floor even if I totally mess up the steps that I am supposed to be doing. That’s a hard skill to practice. Most of the time when working with Sir Steven, we are being so serious trying to learn the steps needed that even pasting on a cheesy smile seems to break concentration. I don’t just want to have a fake, cheesy smile either. I want to be genuinely interesting, something people want to watch. I want to do more than play the oft-used parts that one sees the higher level dancers around us use – like the girls who pretend to be not interested in the boy while dancing, and the boy is dancing to try and woo the girl. That seems so… archetypal. I want to be able to portray myself, to show off the fun-loving free spirit that I am in such a way that draws people in and keeps them interested in seeing what I can do, even if I am dancing something serious like a slow Waltz. That’s how I want to perform. That’s what I need to work on.

As soon as I get the steps memorized, that is. One thing at a time, right?


Yes, My Teeth And Ambitions Are Bared

As I was entering the studio a couple nights ago, Sir Steven (who was out in the hallway fooling around on his tablet) stopped me to tell me that he had been meaning to talk to me for some time about getting Latin dance shoes. Apparently the ones I have had for a while, that I have been using for basically everything, are ballroom shoes. He thinks I would do well to have a pair of Latin shoes that have a half-inch higher heel. Also, he mentioned that I could go down a half size with my dance shoes. My current shoes are already a half size smaller than my sneakers, but Sir Steven recommends a snugger fit that will form better to my foot as the leather starts to stretch and shape. I guess there is a lot that I just didn’t know about dance shoes. My first pair of dance shoes, which I still use at home as practice shoes to avoid going out to my car to get my normal shoes, are the same size as my sneakers. They have a lot of wiggle room in them when I dance, but they were ordered off the Internet without trying anything on, so I only had my regular shoe size to base them on. My current shoes I actually went out to a store that carried ballroom shoes so that I could try them on and see how they fit before getting them. I guess this weekend I will be heading back there to try on even smaller shoes with a taller heel to see what they are like. They’ll make me feel like a giant.

There’s a part of me that is hoping that somehow, magically, having proper Latin shoes will make my Latin dances better, and by Latin BePrepared1dances I mean specifically Cha Cha. Last weekend, we finished up putting together the routine for Cha Cha and it’s… ok. At this point I can do it from memory pretty easily, but there’s something about Cha Cha that just makes me look bumbley. I’ll do stupid things, like doing a New Yorker instead of a hand-to-hand or turning too much or too little during the reverse and natural tops – stupid things that I know in my head will mess things up before they happen, but then they happen anyway. And it’s really only Cha Cha that gives me this kind of trouble. Rumba and Mambo are great, and can be very similar to the things I do in Cha Cha. There’s just something about that dance style that I can’t put my finger on. So, this routine is mostly going to be learned and perfected through constant repetition. It’s the best way I can think to do it.

Last weekend, after the usual private lesson my dance partner and I have with Sir Steven, Lady Q came to talk with me about scheduling a private lesson so that we could work on these new routines that she and I would be doing together. My dance partner and I talked with her for a while about this change from the original competition plan. Lady Q told us that her vision for these extra routines that the two of us would be doing with the instructors was to showcase “Silver-level technique while doing early Bronze level dances.” It sounds like a lofty goal – I’m not even sure I know what the difference between Silver and Bronze level technique would be at this point, let alone be able to do it. She also asked if we had decided what dance styles we wanted to do for these extra heats. My dance partner and I looked at each other and shrugged. I was under the impression that Sir Steven already had a plan in mind for what we were going to do, so I hadn’t really thought about it. The two of us would be doing the same routines, just with two different people, so choosing what routines we wanted to do made sense. Lady Q told us we could think about it and get back to her, so Sparkledancer and I decided to go out to lunch and talk about it. The best plan we could come up with was to focus what we think of as the “Big 5” dances – Waltz, Foxtrot, Rumba, Cha Cha and East Coast Swing. After all, those are the ones that come up the most, so getting more practice seemed like the best course of action.

With a decision made, I inquired with Sir Steven about the secondary routines the next time I was at the studio. His response? We shouldn’t worry about it. He said he already had everything sort of planned out, and would talk with Lady Q to let her know what the deal was. Can you guess what his plan was? I’m betting you can (if you can’t, it’s exactly the same as the plan we had decided on at lunch). There goes the pressure of having to make decisions. When it comes down to it, I really should just trust in Sir Steven. He has some sort of plan for where this dance journey is leading. I am just following along for the ride at this point, trying to do my best to make sure that I don’t make my dance partner look bad, and also don’t make him look bad for being my instructor.
BePrepared2  This weekend during the normal dance technique group class offered, the Princess is going to be coming by to spend the class period talking with everyone about preparing for the competition. It seems like in the last few weeks most everyone who is a member of our little Land of the Loft has decided that they were going to sign up to do heats in the competition, so rather than have their normal instructors go over all sort of stuff with people individually, the Princess said she would pull all of us together and do it all at once. It sounds like most of what will be discussed won’t have much to do with me – things like hair and makeup and whatnot are not something I think I will worry about. But I’ll probably still sit in on the class just to learn for knowledge’s sake. There is also a rumor going around that they are trying to put together a group class for competition things for the month of August to teach all the new competitors things like how to enter and exit the dance floor, or how to get into dance frame as the music starts. That sounds like something more up my alley to practice, so I think I am going to try and rearrange my schedule to attend that when I find out what day it will be. There’s only eight weeks left until the big day, so it’s time to start serious preparations!

Step Up To The Streets

Last weekend… oh boy, it was exhausting. Both of the dance field trips that I had talked about last week actually happened, and they were both a lot of exhausting fun.

A few weeks back during our normal Friday night post-dance ice cream run, Amazon was talking about how she had found a place hosting a Stop Light Party. She sounded pretty excited about it, and that was enough to make the rest of us excited about going. We started gathering people and making plans, even letting Sir Steven and Lord Fabulous know that we would be leaving Friday night after the group class but before the social dance to go to this event. Originally we had planned on having a group of ten of us, but in the end four of them bailed on us (including Amazon, the progenitor of this idea). So it was just me, Sparkledancer, Jack and Diane and the Ski Bums that went. While making plans to go, we all decided to wear yellow to the Stop Light Party, since it amused us and also made it sort-of clear that we weren’t really there looking for any dates.

Arriving at the bar where the event was being held, we took to the dance floor before anyone else really joined. Going out in Charlotte in the past, I’ve found that usually the night life doesn’t pick up until after 11:00PM anyway, so being on a fairly empty dance floor wasn’t really a surprise. We spent the evening on the floor, playing around with a mixture of Cha-Cha and Rumba, East and West Coast Swing and Hustle. Speaking of Hustle, the Ski Bums are Hustle masters. In talking with StepUp1them, I found out that they had learned how to dance Hustle back when they were younger, so they certainly made the rest of us look amateur while we did it. They have only been learning to dance with us for a couple of months now, so they are pretty new to everything else that the other four of us were doing on the dance floor, but they made up for it with sheer enthusiasm.

As the night progressed and the other denizens of the bar had imbibed enough liquid courage, the dance floor filled up quite a bit. That made it much harder to clear room to dance how we were accustomed to dancing. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but when we started to run out of room, I couldn’t switch out of ballroom mode. There’s something about having danced for so long in such a refined manner that doesn’t allow me to dance like everyone else on the floor, like there isn’t an Off switch for that sort of dancing anymore. So the more the party picked up, the more all six of us started to get confined in the crowd, and eventually we decided to call it a night when we just couldn’t move around very much. Plus, we had promised Lady Q that we wouldn’t miss her Pilates class in the morning even if we were staying out late to attend this event, so there was some pressure to go home and get some sleep so we could all get up early the next day.

Saturday night Diane had invited a number of us to go with her to a “Salsa In The Streets” party that was happening on a street corner in downtown Charlotte. This time, Amazon actually decided to come along with us, meeting up with us at the corner and even bringing along the Heartbreak Kid, one of Lady Q’s male students. When I StepUp2arrived at the location, I saw that Jack and Diane had already arrived and, rather unexpectedly, Flexy was already there with them. This event was being put on by a local Salsa dancing club, mostly so that they could hand out fliers and invite people to join them. We chatted off near one of the buildings behind them for a bit, then we all went down and started dancing on the sidewalk with them. One of the members of the club came up to talk with us (and give us fliers), but she said that it was pretty obvious that we had learned ballroom-style Salsa dancing. I’ll admit, after watching the people they brought with them dance for a while, I couldn’t tell if there was any real difference between ballroom-style and whatever style they had learned – a lot of the moves that I saw them do I either knew how to do or had seen someone at the Dance Kingdom doing at one point. There could be a stylistic difference, but I guess I don’t know enough about Salsa to really tell what that was.

Most of the dancing that I did with people that night was just things I had learned in Mambo classes starting on the downbeat instead of the backbeat. I remember in the past, Sir Steven had told one of our group classes that Salsa was essentially ‘sloppy mambo’ because of the timing difference. With that in mind, I felt pretty comfortable dancing with everyone else there, aside from the sidewalk being difficult to dance on. The corner that we occupied wasn’t entirely flat, and wasn’t smooth by any stretch of the imagination. Trying to turn in sneakers on concrete and bricks was challenging, much like the times I have gone out to practice smooth-dance routines on the street. It really makes me appreciate the way the dance shoes that I have work on a wooden floor, even though at this point my shoes have been well worn and are starting to fall apart.

Dance field trips like these really help me keep things fun. With all the practice and all the intensity put into learning competition routines, and all the time spent at the Land of the Loft in classes learning, it’s nice to take a break and go do things that embody the whole reason I started on this journey in the first place: having fun. Sure, a lot of the time it is fun to me to be learning more and more complicated things, and it’s a lot of fun to be elegant and impress the ladies with mad dance skills that I’ve picked up, but sometimes… sometimes it’s really nice to take all that proper form and technique, and shove it aside just to be a bit crazy and laugh about what’s going on for an evening. It also helps reinforce the fact that even though I’m not a very good dancer when compared to other people who study in the Dance Kingdom, I look like a really good dancer when out amongst the population at large. That boost of self-confidence helps put me back in the right frame of mind to start buckling down and work on competition stuff again.

Speaking of competition – we are less than two months left to the competition now. At this point it looks like I will be doing 35 heats divided amongst 10 dance styles with my dance partner, and then another 35 heats with completely different routines in I-don’t-know-how-many styles with Lady Q, and one championship round with my dance partner again. When discussing these new routines with Sir Steven, he promised me that he would teach these different, secondary routines to both me and Sparkledancer, so that we could work on them together during our normal practice meetings, even though we won’t be performing them together when the competition comes around. That makes me feel slightly better about things, since then I wouldn’t have to try and fit extra lesson time in with Lady Q to practice with her in order to learn them properly. This feels like a pretty intense way to jump into the world of actual competitions for dancing. I hope I can step up to the challenge successfully.

It’s The Terror Of Knowing What This World Is About

Flashback to Wednesday night: we had just finished up Foxtrot class, and my dance partner and I were practicing some of the techniques from class. Others were in the back, chit-chatting, waiting for their private lessons to start. Sir Steven was going to be giving a lesson to Amazon, and Yessie was waiting for Lord Fabulous to finish up with the people he was working with to begin a lesson with her. My dance partner and I finished up and had gone over, sat down, and began changing our shoes, talking about our preferences for American Smooth Foxtrot as opposed to International Standard. As Sir Steven came over to grab Amazon to get started, Lord Fabulous turned from his lesson to yell out something unintelligible about telling about the competition. He paused for a moment, then said “Oh yeah” and came over to where my dance partner and I were sitting.

Sir Steven laid out this plan they had decided upon. Apparently they are going to have the two of us compete in some of the lower level heats Terror1during the competition, but we are going to do it separately. Sir Steven is going to compete with Sparkledancer, and I will be paired with Lady Q. When we asked him why, he said that we would be doing it to work on for and technique, and they wouldn’t be charging either of us anything to do it since this was their decision. Since Amazon was standing there with him ready to get started, he said that we would talk about it more the next time the three of us meet on Saturday for our lesson together, leaving us standing there in shock and confusion.

During my drive home, I started feel like I was suddenly under a lot of pressure. What is the reason for having the two of us compete separately? Is it really to have us work on the simpler version of the form and technique for things? Is it because they need more people to compete in the lower level heats than signed up? Believe it or not, I will admit to being scared of dancing with Lady Q. She knows a lot more than I do about what should or shouldn’t be happening. It’s one thing to be in a group class where no one really knows all the steps very well, and to dance with random people. It’s another thing to dance with someone who knows if you screw up and (since I’m the lead) make her look bad. I’m terrified enough when I dance with my dance partner, afraid that I’m going to make her mess up by messing up the lead, thereby making her look bad. That would make me feel horrible. I don’t really have to dance with Sir Steven during the lessons I take with him, as you can imagine, so I don’t really have much practice dancing with one of the noble class of the Dance Kingdom. Plus, how am I going to keep multiple routines for the same dance straight, especially since it is not as easy to schedule time to practice with Lady Q? Or, worse, what if they want me to freestyle it? That would be fine for things in the Rhythm category, but anything in the Smooth category… my skill level in floorcraft is not yet very high. It’s gotten better since the last time I spoke about it, but it’s still one of those things I would consider a weak point. I made the same point to Sparkledancer when we spoke about this turn of events, and told her that she shouldn’t worry so much about it. She gets to compete with Sir Steven, and he will know the routine inside and out (since he put it together), so he will be able to lead her through everything. If I forget things, I’m going to look silly.

These are the things I think about when I sit around.
These are the things I think about when I sit around.

The one thing I didn’t think of until just now is that it is possible that they could do this for West Coast Swing heats. Since I know, from all of the lands in the Dance Kingdom, that we are among the few who have taken a liking to West Coast Swing, and are among the even smaller set who compete with that style, splitting the two of us up to compete during some of those heats means there will be twice as many people on the floor as if they left us to compete with each other. Maybe that has something to do with it. I’d really rather not repeat the experience we had of being the only people on the floor for heats in that style last time…

I suppose this is not an unprecedented move. During the Spring Fling, one of the other non-Pro-Am couples actually did a few heats individually, each paired with a Lord of Lady. I thought it was strange at the time, but if this is standard operating procedure for non-Pro-Am couples, then I will remember to expect it if my dance partner and I ever decide to do another competition after the one in September.

No matter what happens, I suppose my focus should be on the routines I am learning with my dance partner. After all, anything I do with Lady Q, unless I totally destroy the lead during the routine she should know the female part that goes along with it. Last weekend when my dance partner and I worked with Sir Steven, we went back and reviewed our Bolero routine. I happen to like Bolero. It’s another one of those styles, like West Coast Swing, that not many people really put much effort into learning at the Land of the Loft. My dance partner and I enjoy it. Whenever we practice together, generally there is one of two songs on: Ricky Martin’s Casi Un Bolero (which should be obvious, since it’s in the title) or As The World Falls Down by David Bowie (yes, the one from the Labyrinth). Those songs are drilled into my mind as being shining examples of what the Bolero should sound like. It’s kind of like how the Mambo will forever be associated in my head with anything by Lou Bega. Luckily for us, there won’t be much in the way of changes to our Bolero routine that we used during the Spring Fling – we will be expanding on it, but the majority of it we already have down and in order. So that is one less routine I have to worry about studying so hard. We seem to be flying through the stuff in the rhythm category. Once everything is down and memorized, then I can work on actually making them look presentable. Hooray! It’s so exciting!

This weekend, there is a possibility that there may be two dance field trips that I have agreed to go on. We’ll see what happens! Stay tuned, and I’ll share some stories if I survive them.